5 year old questions…

So the week before last, I had a fascinating, inspiring long lunch with Dr Gail Iles. Gail is a a research fellow working on the European Space Agency’s IMPRESS project. One of the cooler things she does is perform her experiments in microgravity. Look…

Dr Gail Iles and other floating science colleague dude

Dr Gail Iles and other floating science colleague dude

The machine behind them does something clever with particles of nickel (I think) which will advance our understanding of how to develop hydrogen fuel cells. I’ve still to get my head fully round what it is Gail actually does. What I do know is that they perform these experiments on a Novespace Airbus A300. That’s a plane:


Once the plane reaches 47 degrees (angle, not temperature) the pilot cuts the engines, the plane goes into freefall and 22 seconds of microgravity is achieved

Gail’s ultimate ambition is to go into space.

The morning before I met Gail, I went into my little boy’s school to explain that I was meeting this amazing person and to ask the children if they had any questions they’d like me to ask her. This week I went back in with her answers and to show them some pictures and a bit of video of Gail spinning (at the bottom of the page here).

Following are the children’s questions and Gail’s answers.

Ruari asked “How were the stars made?”

Sophie asked “What are stars made out of?”

Thomas asked “How was the sun made?”

Gail replied:

“It takes many many thousands or even millions of years for stars to grow. They’re made up of two gases (hydrogen and helium) which is what the whole universe was like when it started after The Big Bang – the whole universe was so hot it was like one enormous star. After many millions of years everything had cooled down enough so that gravity pulled the gases together into fiery balls. And that’s how the first stars were made.”

Someone asked “How heavy are stars?”

Gail replied:

“There are lots of different types of star – Protostars (a baby star), Dwarf Stars (which is a middle aged star like our Sun), Supergiants, Supernovae (which is a star that has run out of fuel and has collapsed) and Neutron stars. How heavy stars are depends on how old they are. So for example a neutron star which is the oldest type of star – if you were to take just a teaspoon of a neutron star and bring it to Earth, it would weigh more than a the whole of our star, the Sun!”

Daniel asked “How hot are stars?”

Gail replied:

“Really hot! And again it depends on how big they are. The coolest stars are 1000 degrees Celsius. Our sun is 6000 degrees and the biggest stars can be as hot as 30000 degrees!”

Max asked “Why does stuff float?” and “Why do shooting stars go so fast?”

Gail replied:

“On Earth things have weight, because we have gravity on Earth. In space there is no gravity so things don’t have weight and they float. In space, weight doesn’t matter.”

“A shooting star is a very small object (like a rock or even something as small as a grain of sand) that is travelling very fast through space (it’s called a meteoroid when it’s in space) and then enters the Earth’s atmosphere (at which point we call it a meteor). The slowest speed it needs to be traveling to enter the Earth’s atmosphere is 11km/sec. Which is pretty fast! Faster than the fastest plane or rocket can go on earth.”

Robert asked “How was the moon made?”

Josh asked “Will any planets break?”

Gail replied:

“Good question! Well, our planet is a bit broken actually. Our Moon is actually part of the Earth. A long time ago another planet hit the Earth and broke a piece off (this is sometimes called The Big Whack) that broken piece is our Moon.”

Aaron asked “How long does it take to get from space

Ellie asked asked “How long does it take to get there?”

Gail replied:

“It takes about 8 minutes for our space shuttles and rockets to get from the surface of the Earth into space, reaching top speeds of 3500mph. To get back, well, it depends how far into space you’ve travelled!”

Someone asked “Have you got a space suit?”

Gail replied:

“No, but I have a flight suit. Here’s a picture of me in it (see pic above). It’s got Velcro fastenings for easy access and as you can see it’s a very bright blue colour. The people responsible for safety in-flight wear bright orange suits (the pilots wear green) and that’s because when we’re in micro gravity you can’t see colours very well so we have to have really bright and differently coloured suits so we can see who’s who!”

Someone asked “Who drives the plane?”

Gail replied:

“Two pilots and two flight engineers sit in the cockpit and the captain’s name is Stephane.  They’re from the French Test Flight Centre and because all the safety and auto pilot functions are switched off these dudes are the best.”

Jon: “The best of the best?”

Gail: “Better than the best.”

Someone asked “What sort of plane is it?”

Gail replied:

“We fly on the Novespace Zero-G Airbus A300. Here’s a picture of it.” (see pic above)

Aaron asked “Who made the world?”

Gail replied:

“Well, there are lots of people with lots of different ideas about the answer to that one. I think we’ll leave that one to your teacher…”

Jon asked “How do astronauts do a wee in space?”

Gail replied: “It’s not easy.”

[youtube 51tKalmUuP4]

The children were brilliant. Thank you Mrs Jones, Mrs Fox and Year One at Skyswood Primary school. Clare, Chris and I are going into a couple of schools in Leeds to ask some more questions and tell some stories in a few weeks.

Finally, a couple of links that might be of use/interest to some of you.

The European Space Agency’s Education Resources for Primary Schools:

The European Space Agency’s “Living in Space” web pages

NASA’s “Living In Space” webpages



I might be doing myself a bit less justice than I deserve on this occasion 😉

I’m currently reading a pretty famous (and brilliant) book “How Do You Go To The Bathroom In Space” by ex astronaut William S Pogue. A proper great starting place to learn more about what it might actually be like up/out there.



Well it’s an awesome project. One that was down on my ‘to do list’ to try and conquer in the future. Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed.